Wild as the Day is Long: The Restorative Medicine of Avena
There’s nothing quite like the sound of a warm spring wind rustling through a vibrantly green patch of Oats. Bowed with the weight of their ripening fruit, they nod and toss their heads with each breeze. Their sweet smell and long smooth leaves certainly invite us to sit down and get acquainted with them. In case you can’t tell, Avena is a favorite plant of mine, both as a beautiful living plant and as a primary medicine in my materia medica.
Many people think of gruel or porridge when they hear the word Oats. For some, this is a pleasant association of home-cooked food and for others, not so much. Most don’t necessarily connect Oats to medicine or even to a live plant but rather to that flaky brown stuff in the round cardboard container many of us grew up with.
And yet, Avena has its origins in a wild plant that has spread so well and so widely that even experts are unclear on exactly where it first began. Feral and cultivated Oats are one of our best nervines, nerve tonics and overall supplementing tonics. As weeds and wild things, they require little from human hands to make themselves at home and proliferate at will. There’s a lesson to be had in their tenacious vibrancy and in the particular medicine they provide us. In their capacity to restore frayed nerves and tired minds, they also give us the gift of returning to our original wild selves with renewed energy and vigor.
While I have previously written at some length about the use of the fresh plant tincture of milky tops of Avena, this particular post is about the dried aerial parts of the plant, including either just the dried milky tops or the entire above ground green plant, harvested during the milky stage.
Avena is one of those mild herbs that I was at first rather skeptical of. I found myself wondering if it actually ~did~ much of anything, outside of providing vitamins and minerals. Yes, yes, I know what the books say, but I’ll admit that I’m rarely convinced of anything just by reading about it. In my world, experience will prove something out, or not. That the fresh tincture of the milky tops worked as an effective nervous system trophorestorative I had little doubt of after many case studies where the plant did indeed make a significant difference. But it’s taken me much longer to make what I feel is a fair and accurate assessment of the dried plant used as an infusion. This monograph is a summary of just that – my experiences working with Oatstraw with family, friends, clients and myself.
Avena is a consistent, safe and effective nutritive tonic for those suffering from exhaustion from overwork or emotional trauma. Often there will be symptoms of irritability, chronic fatigue, inability to focus, loss of libido and sometimes heart palpitations. The loss of libido is often directly related to the other symptoms, as it can be difficult to be fully present and physically engaged when dealing with anxiety and bone-deep tiredness. However, it does appear that Avena has a more specific effect on the endocrine system as well, promoting balanced menstrual cycles and sexual health. And proving the old saying about sowing one’s oats. This is even more true when the Avena is combined with an adaptogenic/tonic herb such as Withania.
Avena is most indicated when there is a combination of anxiety and restlessness (often accompanied by insomnia) with some level of depression, mental fatigue and inability to focus. It’s great for that “tired but wired” feeling so many of experience after long periods of overwork (or child rearing), especially if there is a history of lack of adequate sleep. It’s also an excellent tonic for those whose nervous systems are worn down or fried from substance abuse of any kind. Additionally, I have seen it significantly reduce the occurrence of chronic tension headaches brought on by anxiety, overwork, menstrual cycle and/or exhaustion.
The herb can be very helpful where there are palpitations triggered by tiredness and endocrine imbalance. Avena has a long reputation as a mild cardiotonic, and while I’m not sure if the mode of action is simply through its effect on the nervous system or if there is a more direct impact on the heart itself but I have definitely seen it reduce the frequency and severity of heart palpitations clearly brought on by stress, although I prefer the dried plant combined with the use of the fresh plant tincture of the milky tops in such cases. From King’s American Dispensatory:
This plant is a nerve-tonic, stimulant, and antispasmodic. It ranks among the most important restoratives for conditions depending upon nervous prostration, and for the nervous exhaustion consequent upon typhoid and other low fevers, and the accidental disorders arising from these complaints, as weak heart, spermatorrhoea, insomnia, etc. In enfeebled states of the heart muscle it acts as a good tonic to improve the energy of the organ, and is recommended by Prof Webster to prevent relapsing cardiac rheumatism. In this condition it is not thought to be specially antirheumatic, but rather to strengthen that debility upon which the rheumatic diathesis depends, so that the patient is less subject to atmospheric and other impressions.
Avena has neither overt relaxant or stimulating actions, but instead seems to heal and nourish the nervous system so that the body can respond appropriately to stimulus rather than overreacting with either depression or anxiety. Its soothing character and neutral energetic profile makes it appropriate for nearly anyone, including children and those weak from deficiency or long illness. Herbalist Thomas Avery Garran specifically says that:
Oat is a gentle supplementing medicinal. Its action of supplementing both yin and qi is somewhat unique and makes it appropriate for many patterns affecting an extraordinary number of patients in the West. Coupled with its [ability] to nourish the heart and calm the spirit, these supplementing properties make oat extremely important in modern practice…
Keep in mind that Avena is a nutritive, gentle herb and can take time to have a noticeable effect. While some people, especially those with extreme exhaustion, can feel the soothing touch of the plant right away, many only notice the effects after 4-6 weeks of consistent use. If symptoms are severe and a more rapid resolution is needed, consider using the tincture of the fresh milky heads in addition to the Oatstraw. The tincture doesn’t replace the mineral-rich water-based preparations of Oatstraw, but it usually has a quicker action and they work very well when used in tandem.
Some herbalists are of the opinion that only the fresh plant tincture of the milky tops is the only part of the plant worth using, but I have found in my practice that the dried green herb also has great value. This is in part due to its impressive mineral profile, but also because of its gentle nervine effect. I consider the tincture and the dried plant to be somewhat different medicines, and often use them concurrently.
Oatstraw is the foundation of many of my nourishing infusion blends for clients with nervous system depletion, endocrine deficiency and general lack of energy and mental clarity. The infusion is quite pleasant tasting, light, slightly nutty, grassy and sweet and with a bit of honey, even most children can be convinced to indulge in a cup of Oatstraw. It’s hard to go wrong with Avena, and it will often help and almost never harm or cause complications. It is a core restorative, and very much a tonic in the sense that it replenishes and supplements at a deep level rather than simply stimulating surface function. I can’t emphasize how needed and vital these sorts of medicines are in an age and culture where burnout is the norm and exhaustion is expected. Do keep in mind though, that depletion needs to be addressed on every level, from lifestyle and sleep habits to nutrition and herbs. There is no one quick fix, the key is supporting the whole person.
Oats are common feral and wild plants throughout most of the US and beyond. They’re also are very easy to grow seed, even indoors or by children. Wildlife are very fond of it though, so keep it protected if you have hungry neighborhood critters. It’s ready to harvest when the immature green fruits pop when you squeeze them and emit a milky white fluid. You can harvest the whole plant or just the milky tops. If you harvest the tops and cut them back by about half, they tend to come back with a second round of fruit to harvest.
Common Names: Wild Oats, Oatstraw, Oatgrass, Catgrass,
Botanical Name: Avena sativa, A. fatua
Botanical Family: Poaceae
Taste: Sweet, bland
Energetics: Neutral, moist
Actions:Nutritive, nervine, nervous system trophorestorative
Parts Used: Dried aerial parts or tops harvested during milky phase.
Preparations: Usually taken as an infusion, and sometimes a decoction (if primarily interested in extracting minerals).
Dosage: From 1-4 Cups of the infusion per day usually, preferably spread out through the day rather than all at once.
Considerations & Contraindications: None except that a very few people wit Celiac disease or gluten intolerance have problems with Oats in any form, sometimes because of cross-contamination with other grains during processing. Additionally, some individuals have a rare reaction specifically to Oats. Otherwise Avena is a very safe and basically a food-like herb.
Recipe: A favorite spring tonic of mine that I find very beneficial in increasing energy without overt stimulation and while simultaneously providing a sense of centered calm is a sweet and spicy blend of Oatstraw, Raspberry, Sassafras, Roses and Cinnamon. This alterative mix is both nourishing and energizing, and with a bit of honey or maple (or birch) syrup, enjoyed by both children and adults served either cold or hot.
- 1/2 C Oatstraw or Oat tops
- 1/4 Cup Raspberry (Rubus) Leaves or 1/8 C Sassafras Leaves
- 2 Tsp Sassafras root
- 2-3 large pinches of Rose (Rosa) petals
- small pinch of Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) powder
Add ingredients to a quart jar. Cover with just boiled water and cover with airtight lid. Allow to infuse for 2 hours to overnight. Strain and enjoy.
Variation: For a stronger relaxant nervine effect, try substituting Peach (Prunus persica) leaves or Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) leaves.
Resources & References:
King’s American Dispensatory (Felter-Lloyd)
Medical Herbalism (Hoffmann)
Western Herbs According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (Garran)
Herbal Medicine of the American Southwest (Kane)
The Earthwise Herbal: Old World (Wood)